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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 March 2005, 14:55 GMT
Rap pioneer's sound success story
Sylvia Robinson
Sylvia Robinson had tasted chart success as Sylvia with Pillow Talk
Sugar Hill Records, which put out 1979's Rapper's Delight by the Sugarhill Gang - debatably the first rap record - have released a set of records commemorating their history as the pioneers of hip-hop.

The label, founded in 1979 by Sylvia Robinson and her husband Joe, brought together Master G, Wonder Mic and Big Bank Hank as the Sugarhill Gang. Their first release, Rapper's Delight, sold several million copies worldwide and established rap as the genre it is today.

Sugar Hill eventually lost out to other labels, such as Def Jam, and its fortunes faded after 1983.

"Hip-hop culture had existed for a number of years in the States, going back to the early 70s, in terms of graffiti, break-dancing, and people rapping over other records," Will Niccoll, the boss of the label's UK subsidy, told BBC World Service's The Music Biz programme.

"But come 1979 and early 1980, the scene got to a level where people started to take it on a commercial level."

'Novelty' record

Developing out of the South Bronx, rap music had been established for a number of years previous to 1979. Elements of rap music can be heard in the work of US group the Last Poets as far back as 1971.

It was Sylvia Robinson, who had previously run Platinum Records - a successful disco label - who saw the commercial potential in the sound, which was usually performed at parties.

Sugarhill Gang

"When that record first came out, the guys who were driving the scene - the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, the Crash Crew, who were the real leaders on the scene - were rather taken aback," Mr Niccoll said.

But at the time, the Sugarhill Gang themselves doubted there would be many rap records and saw the record as a novelty.

The full version of Rapper's Delight was nearly 16 minutes long - but this did not stop its success.

One radio station in St Louis had its phone lines jammed for 12 hours after the first time it played it. Chuck D, later to become a member of Public Enemy, said that "it wasn't how long the 15 minutes were, but how short the 15 minutes were."

As a result of the Sugarhill Gang's success, the label went on to release records by Positive Force, Spoonie Gee, and Mellie Mel and Grandmaster Flash.

"Through the whole story, one of the interesting things is that although it's a really urban culture, the marketing and A&R genius of Sylvia Robinson and Joe Robinson really shines through," Mr Niccoll said.

"They spotted things before they were going to happen."

Sugar Hill's decline

He gave the example of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's The Message - which the group did not want to make.

"Sylvia kept going, 'you've got to do this record'," he said.

Public Enemy
Public Enemy's social commentary can be traced to The Message
"She saw it for what it was - social commentary, taking rap in a new direction.

"That record set the tone for all that was to follow - Run DMC, Public Enemy, NWA - all the way through to Eminem, Jay-Z, that we've got today."

However, despite being "untouchable" between 1979 and 1983, Sugar Hill records would eventually be left behind by rival rap labels such as Def Jam and Death Row. In 1995, their entire catalogue was bought out by Rhino Records.

Mr Niccoll said the decline was because the label eventually "didn't really understand the dynamics of hip-hop."

"Hip-hop is about DJs and a microphone - not just some guys rapping over a house band," he added.

"They divorced the rappers from the DJs and when they made that separation they dynamic of hip-hop was lost."

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